Reverse dieting could be the difference between you reaching your goal and maintaining your weight loss results or gaining back every pound of fat you lost. So it’s important to understand when to start reverse dieting.
When should you start reverse dieting? You should start reverse dieting when either (1) you’ve achieved your weight loss goal, (2) when weight loss is no longer occurring despite your best efforts, (3) when adherence to the diet is no longer possible, (4) you’ve dieted for a bodybuilding show, or (5) your calories are so low that it becomes a health risk.
Reverse dieting is a powerful tool when implemented correctly, and will help you avoid ruining your weight loss achievements after your dieting phase.
After reading this article, you’ll learn:
- Why you should start a reverse diet
- What to consider when deciding to reverse diet
- The risks of not reverse dieting when you should
- If reverse dieting is necessary
Why Should You Start A Reverse Diet?
We should start a reverse diet to speed up our metabolism, which can slow down when we’ve been dieting for an extended period.
Metabolism is a sum of our body’s energy expenditure, including the energy expended from bodily functions (ex: breathing), the thermic effect of food (the amount of energy it takes to digest foods), non-exercise activity (ex: housework), and exercise.
When our metabolism slows down our body doesn’t burn calories as readily because it feels that it needs to conserve energy to maintain our bodily functions. Therefore maintaining the weight loss that has already occurred becomes more difficult, and continued weight loss can feel almost impossible.
However, we can speed our metabolism back up by increasing our caloric intake to a maintenance level (the number of calories we need to maintain our weight) so that the body knows that more food is coming in and it can get back to business as usual, rather than trying to preserve all its energy for bodily functions.
With that said, If we were to increase our calorie intake too much and too quickly after a dieting phase, our body wouldn’t be able to adapt fast enough by burning more calories. This is because it takes time for our body to register that more food is coming in.
Therefore, in increasing calories too quickly, we would put on fat more readily because we would be eating more calories than our maintenance level at that time, resulting in a calorie surplus (more calories than our body needs).
To avoid a calorie surplus and unnecessary fat gain, and instead maintain close to our current weight and body fat percentage, we need to gradually increase calories week-to-week to allow our body to adapt at its own pace – this is the whole idea of a ‘reverse diet’.
If we don’t reverse diet when progress slows or we’ve reached our goal, it will be difficult to maintain the progress that we’ve made or continue to see progress in the future because our body cannot function on such low calories for extended periods.
5 Considerations For When To Start A Reverse Diet
You’ll want to consider reverse dieting if:
- Our fat loss goal has been achieved
- Our progress has stalled despite best efforts
- Adhering to the diet is no longer possible
- We just dieted for a bodybuilding show
- Our calories are so low that it’s a health risk
1. Our Fat Loss Goal Has Been Achieved
We’ve achieved our goal, we look shredded, and we’re feeling accomplished! Now what? It’s time to reverse diet!
Reverse dieting is important once we’ve reached our weight loss goal because we’ll likely want to start eating more food, as sticking to these lower calories indefinitely to maintain this progress is not realistic.
But if we just stop dieting and try to “go back to normal eating” then we’ll put on all the weight that we’ve just lost (and maybe more).
Therefore to maintain progress while eating more food, we need to gradually build our metabolism back up by incrementally increasing our calories week-to-week.
2. Our Progress Has Stalled Despite Best Efforts
We should consider a reverse diet once progress has stalled and we are no longer losing weight or seeing body composition changes and it’s not feasible to lower calories or increase activity further.
Once we reach this point, the best course of action is to reverse diet so that we can maintain what progress we have made while boosting our metabolism so that weight loss can occur more easily in the future.
Once we’ve completed a reverse diet, we will have much more success with weight loss going forward because we will be leaner than when we initially started dieting and our metabolism will be expending energy more readily.
- If your progress has stalled momentarily (not long-term), then you might want to consider a refeed day instead of entering a reverse diet phase. You can learn more in my article on: Should I Refeed While Cutting?
3. Adhering to the Diet Is No Longer Possible
If we reach the point that we aren’t able to adhere to our diet anymore then we should consider reverse dieting so that we can maintain the progress we have made while increasing our food intake.
Sticking to your diet might not be possible for mental reasons (unmotivated, mentally fatigued, emotional eating), physical reasons (extremely hungry, movement is lacking, health issues), or social reasons (wanting to eat out, go out with friends, participate in family events).
If we were to just give up on our diet without reverse dieting, we would likely gain back all of the fat that we had lost (or more) by overconsuming calories.
Instead, we should reverse diet so that we can maintain close to our current level of body fat as we work on increasing our metabolism to allow us to consume more food without gaining fat.
4. We Just Dieted for a Bodybuilding Show
To compete in a bodybuilding show, we have to get extremely lean to be competitive which requires us to diet for an extended period. After the show though, we should reverse diet to stay as lean as possible rather than gaining more fat than we want.
If we didn’t reverse diet after the bodybuilding show, we would put on more fat that we want, which would make it mentally more difficult because it is hard to go from seeing ourselves super lean to less lean.
Additionally, if we don’t reverse diet and put on too much fat mass, it will make the next bodybuilding prep that much harder because we would have to spend even more time in a deficit to get lean enough for the stage.
The best course of action is to plan to start our reverse diet after the show to minimize fat gain by gradually increasing our calories and letting our metabolism speed back up at its own pace.
Planning to reverse diet after the show can also help keep us focused on the next goal, rather than feeling like after the show it’s a “free-for-all”, which can lead to binge eating.
5. Our Calories Are so Low That It’s a Health Risk
Consuming enough calories is important so that our body is getting enough energy to support bodily functions like breathing, digestion, muscular contractions, etc. If our calories are too low, then our organs could start “shutting down”, so we have to be mindful about getting enough calories in.
If we start to feel unwell, health markers are off, and we’re chronically below 1000 calories (women) or 1500 calories (men) then we NEED to reverse diet.
Reverse dieting can help to prevent excessive fat gain and help us to feel our best while increasing calories to fuel our bodies properly.
On this note, Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietitian, said:
“I often make an analogy to my clients when it comes to why it is important not to have a very low-calorie diet.
Imagine that your calories are like a paycheck you get every month. If you get $1000 every month and have $500 of expenses, this means that you have $500 left over to spend. Up to a certain point, you can spend the remaining $500 because you know next month you will receive the same.
However, if all of a sudden, in the next month, you go from $1000 to $500, this means that you need to cut back on your expenses (remember that they were $500).
To cover your expenses and still have some money left, you start making cutbacks (your expenses now are $300). What remains once you pay all your costs ($200), you are probably going to save for emergencies.
Your body works the same way. If you don’t consume enough calories, it will first make your body less efficient (making cutbacks in your metabolism), and then the remaining calories, will be stored as fat for emergencies (saving).Brenda Peralta, RD
Risks Of Not Starting A Reverse Diet: What Happens?
If we don’t reverse diet, and we continue to eat in a caloric deficit despite not seeing any continued progress, then when we do decide to stop dieting our metabolism will have slowed down so much that if we eat anything more than we currently are we will likely gain weight quite rapidly.
We’ve already put in a lot of effort to get to our current level of leanness so we aren’t going to want to throw it all away by not reverse dieting at the proper time.
The risk is that if we don’t reverse diet following our weight loss phase, we could end up yo-yo dieting, which is extreme fluctuations of overconsuming and under-consuming calories). This would cause us to gain fat, essentially losing all of our body compensation results from our dieting phase.
It would also slow down our metabolism. This would make it difficult to lose weight in the future because our metabolism wouldn’t speed up if we aren’t giving it enough time out of a calorie deficit, and when we yo-yo (which is very common during/after dieting) we don’t actually spend enough time out of a deficit.
Therefore, planning to reverse diet is a better course of action than just leaving it to chance and potentially putting on weight by keeping energy expenditure too low to maintain or lose weight.
- Related Article: When Should I Stop Reverse Dieting? (5 Signs)
Frequently Asked Questions: Starting A Reverse Diet
Is Reverse Dieting Necessary?
Reverse dieting is necessary to keep the progress that we’ve made and to make progress possible in the future. If we don’t reverse diet, we will likely put on much more fat than we want, or just continue to suffer on lower calories until we eventually give up and then put on fat.
Will Reverse Dieting Make Me Fat?
No, reverse dieting will help to minimize fat gain as much as possible if calories are increased gradually up to a maintenance level. However, if the process is rushed and we try to add calories too quickly then there is more potential for fat gain.
What Is The Difference Between A Refeed And A Reverse Diet?
A refeed is a planned increase in calories that lasts 1 to 2 days in the hopes of minimizing the impact on metabolism so that we can continue to lose weight, whereas a reverse diet speeds up our metabolism over time and is implemented when weight loss is no longer possible or realistic.
How Much Should Calories Increase Week-to-Week On A Reverse Diet?
Calories should be increased by 50-150 calories each week if our weight is staying relatively the same with each increase. If we’re losing weight, then we can add more calories. But, if our weight is trending upwards, then we may want to try bi-weekly increases instead of weekly.
Other Reverse Dieting Resources
- How To Reverse Diet Without Counting Calories (6 Steps)
- Reverse Diet Weight Gain: What Can You Expect?
Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 Sep;68(3):599-606. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/68.3.599. PMID: 9734736.
Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American Psychologist, 40(2), 193–201. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.40.2.193
Roybal, D. (2005). Is “Yo-Yo” Dieting or Weight Cycling Harmful to One’s Health? Nutrition Noteworthy, 7(1). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1zz4r4qk
About The Author
Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath. She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.